When veterans return home from extended tours of duty, it’s cause for celebration. But unexpected feelings of isolation, anger, grief, and shame all too easily lead to substance abuse, depression, divorce, excessive risk taking, and even suicide. Spouses, parents, and children simply aren’t equipped to deal with the “invisible wounds of war,” and natural reactions to a warrior’s emotional pain are often counterproductive. The resulting confusion can all too easily escalate into cycles of abusive outbursts, overwhelming guilt and silent alienation.
“There’s a serious lack of educational programs that assist military personnel and their families in making the smoothest possible transition from the battlefield to life back home,” says Linda Kohanov, founder/director of the Epona International Study Center, which teaches emotional fitness, relationship, nonverbal communication and leadership skills, in part through working with horses. “Many of these servicemen and women have the endurance, intelligence, and discipline to become tremendous assets to this country, but their lack of training in emotional fitness and social intelligence skills becomes a significant hindrance to long term success. Children also suffer from the resulting instability in family life, making the psychological wounds of war a multi-generational phenomenon.”
Recognizing that funding sources tend to favor people with severe clinical depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Linda and her colleagues have created the Merlin’s Spirit Memorial Fund for returning military personnel, veterans and their families. Named for Linda’s stallion Midnight Merlin and his son Spirit, the program teaches people advanced personal and professional relationship skills, empowerment, and resilience in the face of traumatic events.
When Linda met Merlin in 1999, he was a stunning black stallion with tremendous untapped potential, but early training made him so dangerous and unpredictable that he had to be kept in an isolated corral. “Some techniques used in training show horses are the same techniques that were traditionally used for war horses,” she reveals. “In the wrong hands, these practices become abusive, creating volatile, rage-filled horses. In rehabilitating Merlin, I realized that he had many of the symptoms that veterans with PTSD report, a frightening combination of power, energy and hyper-vigilance leading to explosive outbursts of anger followed by an almost unbearable combination of vulnerability, confusion and shame for his actions. He threatened my life several times, but something in his eyes kept me from giving up on him.” Merlin and Spirit
In teaching the frustrated stallion how to respectfully integrate into a herd, Linda tapped what she calls a “fierce sensitivity” in herself and her mares. She learned to set strong yet compassionate boundaries with Merlin while helping him break the cycle of rage and shame that kept him isolated from humans as well as other horses. And she began teaching these same skills to people through activities with gentler, specially trained horses, chronicling her experiences in three best-selling books.
“Merlin had the most profound affect on veterans, who very much related to his story,” Linda reports. “They observed that it was a more difficult, arguably heroic act for Merlin to learn a new way of relating to the world than it was for him to keep reacting out of fear and anger. Seeing this powerful stallion living peacefully with his mares and working with his son Spirit, who sired his own daughter in 2008, would bring tears to their eyes, filling them with tremendous respect for their own challenges in returning to life back home. The fierce sensitivity I engaged with Merlin turned out to be an essential ingredient for family members to adopt in order to help their loved ones transform the intense emotional pain that many military service men and women feel in the wake of the all too common traumas of combat.” Merlin and Comet
When Merlin died in February of 2009, the outpouring of cards and emails from around the world was startling. “People were asking for ideas on how they could contribute in his memory,” Linda says. “It occurred to me that the best tribute to the lessons Merlin taught us would be to create a fund to assist military service men, women, and their families in finding the same sense of peace and power that he eventually achieved.”
Donations to Merlin’s Spirit Memorial Fund, a division of the Headlands Foundation, support workshops that teach military personnel and their families how to deal constructively with the challenges of re-integrating into society. “It’s simply impossible for soldiers who’ve faced the intensity of combat to go back to the way they were before they left,” Linda stresses. “These people are warriors. They’ve been initiated through extreme experiences, and it’s important for us to not only realize this, but to support the reentry process more effectively. At the same time, veterans need to learn new skills for channeling their tremendous power and energy into peacetime pursuits. For the vast majority of service men and women, this is less of a therapy issue and more of an educational issue. The stigma often associated with therapy in the military should not prevent people from getting the social intelligence and emotional strength training they need to excel. They made tremendous sacrifices for our safety. It’s in everyone’s best interest to help them find happiness and success in life.
“Spirit and his brothers ultimately benefitted from their father’s journey to greater health and balance. With the cycle of isolation, rage, shame and abuse broken, Merlin’s sons—and his little granddaughter—are among the calmest, bravest, yet most spirited and personable horses you’ll ever meet. They now teach people from around the world how to move through their own challenges to better serve society and nourish future generations.”